Why can't some students learn English studying online?

Para português clique aqui.

Ever since I started to work exclusively with online classes, a little less than a year ago, I have been taking increasing interest in understanding the dynamics and profile of students who reach out to us, online teachers, so as to provide the best possible service I can and stay competitive. One of the things I really like doing whenever I have plans to outline business strategies is to work with statistics about my interaction with students and prospects, so that's what I have been doing. 

My goal is to answer the following question: Why can't some students learn English studying online?

The following pie charts show a few of the conclusions I have drawn so far.

(disclaimer: they are all based on MY personal experience teaching Brazilian students. Nonetheless, based on conversations I have had with people from all over the world about what I do, I think this could be useful if you teach other nationalities too).

How my face-to-face students reacted to the change

At the time, I had 14 students, which accounted for a solid 22-25h per week. A few things that have interested me about their reactions:

1. the students I had expressed three reactions to the change:

a. some tried the online project and stayed,

b. a few quit but then started after a while.

c. most quit without trying.

None of the ones who did actually start gave up afterwards, and I seem to consistently get good reviews from them. As for the ones who left, no hard feelings, I referred them to a very competent teacher who taught f2f and moved on. I felt liberated by the fact I wasn't failing to convince people that my idea was good. Quite the contrary, I now needed and had the potential to get new clients;

2. as soon as I moved my business to online I flat-out lost almost half my clients. Yes. I gave them some time and even offered free try-out lessons, but unfortunately the majority of them were adamant: they didn't want to have online classes and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about that.

3. The ones who quit were mostly in company students who were used to me traveling to teach them. Amongst the reasons they gave me for dropping me were that online classes meant less interaction, or something too complicated for someone to learn in their forties, even though they had never tried them before. I think they had a bias from things they'd heard and seen before.

4. An interesting thing that happen was the fact that in the quitters' group were 2 female students who were in their late 20's/early 30's and ( here's the irony ) worked for a tech company that makes educational videos. Their reasons were simple: online classes are just not for them.  

This made me conclude that:

a. age and affinity with technology might not be the reason for students to prefer face-to-face classes;

b. online classes are a new thing to most people, and because of that they are more likely to reject the idea because they don't know what to expect. 

Every time I complain about a student leaving Mom says: aluno é igual biscoito, vai um vem oito (students are like cookies. One goes away, eight come our way) 

Now here's what happened with the new students.

With so much less getting ready time, I gradually went got to 32 students, some of which were permanent, some temporary (TOEFL crash courses and Travel English mostly).

And here's how the dynamics been working:

1. Main reason for my students to choose online classes

Most people who get in touch with me are referrals from former students, friends or peers, which has led me to conclude that a lot of the time people choose how they want to study based on what has worked for others or on recommendations. That can be a great criterium, but it also means traditional ways of learning get a better chance at being the first choice. As a matter of fact, most of my referrals reported they only felt comfortable to have online classes because someone they trusted spoke very highly of me. Therefore, a lot of students might not even know what studying online is like enough to consider it as an option.

Moreover, I was really interested in the other two reasons they gave me: logistics and time, i.e., people who do choose to study online are busy, perhaps far too busy to get face-to-face classes at that school or with that teacher a friend recommended. Online English students are people who often haven't got time to waste, and are so crammed with personal and professional appointments that they choose an online course because there isn't another way to go, and because it's so easy to sign up, takes them less effort in planning to enroll for classes, even if they are to busy to attend them.

That takes me to my next pie chart:

How many times we were in touch before we started the course

At first, I was slightly frustrated at how flaky these students and prospects were. A lot of the time I would even send out the contract, they'd commit to start, and then they would change their mind or I'd never hear back from them. My approach to promoting my classes was quite similar to my face-to-face ones, so what was wrong? How could I make the process easier and faster? 

This answer has been partially answered with chart 2. If a student is choosing an online course because of time and logistics, it means they might not be as available as they'd like to be. Probably, if they wanted a face-to-face course, they wouldn't even have the time to go and sign up. Therefore, it is understandable they might be struggling with time and with being at a specific place to have class. But yes, it's no less frustrating. I tackle the issue by letting them know their slot is only really booked if they pay me and send me the signed contract first. No exception.

The next reason is a great one.

Prior Experiences with online courses

These numbers have been a real eye-opener: teaching online is definitely a form of disruptive technology. Many of my students have done some kind of online course before, but none of them has done more than three, and the online courses they did are not necessarily of the same kind, format and/or topic. Lack of experience in the field and lack of time to research and give it try is definitely playing a role in how people choose, which means, to a lot of students, the answer is going with famous brands or trying traditional ways.

And this is where indecisiveness begins: the internet is filled with proposals that promise a revolution in English learning and offer as much flexibility as possible. But here's the thing: it is impossible for a teacher to adjust their schedule to every student's needs, unless the student pays the teacher to be available full-time (which no student does). After all, teachers have a personal life and other students too. With that, what is being offered online a lot of the time is counterproductive. Students are being told they can schedule classes whenever they want, which necessarily means they are not getting personalized English classes and their teachers are probably not getting a set number of hours or a commitment from the platform. The student who has that kind of privilege is generally allocated in a group full of strangers, with a different teacher every time. To me, the worst problems with that are:

a. learning a language is something personal, and it requires relating to others, being comfortable and wanting to communicate with them; that's much harder if you never know who you are talking to. 

b. learning languages demands time and a content effort, unless you are a genius who can learn to identify and use content without repeated input, which you don' if you are getting different teachers all the time.

Another problem is courses where the student pays for a package of classes and may schedule them as they please within a time frame. Realistically, it will be extremely hard, if not impossible, for a specific teacher to be available on the exact days and times you are free every week, as I have pointed out, and the hassle of booking the appointment every week might have the student simply not study in the long run. Leaving the options wide implies relegating one's studies to a less important position in their routine and constantly demanding more time from the teacher. As a matter of fact, most teacher will eventually realize it's better to have one fixed class at each slot instead of offering loads of flexibility to one student; it's better to drop someone who occupies three different slots every week and get 3 students who don't do that. At least, I have. 

Alongside with that, there seems to be a challenge we face. Many of the teachers I speak to who work online are still selling conversation classes on Skype, emailing PDFs and links of youtube videos as the course material; that's not good enough to get your student to buy your idea. To me, as a teacher and service provider,  one of the most important things to do is to learn about software (check out the posts on having an  online eboard and google classroom ) and hardware we can use in our classes, and all the wonderful things that have the potential to make the experience interactive and to show to potential students so they what good online classes are like. I myself have seen a surge in the number of students I have from the moment I started to present solutions to the challenges they face, and how easy handling technology can be. But most of all, I try to emphasize the need for discipline and organization, which has led me to come up with a motto:


Therefore, I don't believe the problem is the online course itself but in how we approach the resources, sell it and carry it out. It's the novelty of it. I also do believe age could be a thing, but not necessarily; most of my students are over 40. I think the main issue we have is the existing platforms focus solely or primarily on the student's expectation, which generally is 'flexibility', to a level where both the educational and the financial side of things get compromised, and many private teachers haven't yet figured out how to have a board, how to create a course proposal, or even a website. I feel like a part of the rejection we receive is because teachers tend to not be keen on technology, and therefore many of us have not yet managed to offer interactive learning experiences.

But of course, we as teachers need to do our best, but it doesn't mean we are going to convince everyone every time. And that's ok. Because as Mom says: one goes away, eight come your way.

Be the online teacher you'd like to have. 

Want more tips on teaching online?